Director Christopher Lehnhoff's unconventional production of Tosca with the Nederlandse Opera and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra succeeds largely because of the exceptional musical performances of the cast and the confident leadership of Riccardo Chailly. It's certainly a luxury to have an ensemble with the prestige of the Concertgebouw as a pit orchestra, and the professionalism they bring to Puccini's treacherous but deceptively simple-sounding score makes a significant difference in the overall impact of the opera. Chailly leads the orchestra and chorus (plus the chorus of the Utrecht Cathedral Choirschool) in a shattering performance of the melodrama. While all the leads are terrific, it's Bryn Terfel's Scarpia in his first performance of the role that drives this drama. His acting skills place him heads and shoulders above most of his operatic colleagues of his generation. He's fully believable and truly scary as the bully with the power to destroy anything he chooses, and his vocal strength and the finesse of his singing make him an iconic Scarpia. As fine a singing actress as Catherine Malfitano is, her Tosca is overshadowed by Terfel's magnetic presence, but perhaps that imbalance is appropriate in the second act, when Scarpia holds all the cards and Tosca is at his mercy. It's difficult to tell whether it is a matter of orchestral imbalance or her lack of vocal power, but occasionally the orchestra swallows up her sound. Richard Margison is in excellent voice as Cavaradossi. He tends to underplay dramatically, but he holds his own in his confrontations with Terfel.
Lehnhoff purposefully avoids any attempt at a realistic portrayal of the three well-known Roman sites where the opera is set. Set and costume designers Raimund Bauer and Falk Bauer give the opera a vaguely modernistic but non-specific setting. The first act is dominated by Cavaradossi's painting, a huge close-up of Mary Magdalene's face, and gigantic airplane propellers symbolize Scarpia's power in the second and third acts. It doesn't necessarily all hang together coherently, but it makes for a number of very striking and memorable stage pictures. The musical and dramatic strengths of this performance make it one that should interest fans of the piece, and Terfel's performance alone demands the attention of anyone who cares about dramatic verisimilitude in opera.